All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: Stunt Performers and Choreography

Since fights are choreographed on TV and they’re trying to make it look authentic, can it still actually look unrealistic to an expert simply because actual moves are thought up on the spot and not through planning? Any examples? Other than like being a split second out of sync where the actor starts a counter move before the move comes or looking in the direction before the move comes? But unrealistic because there’s no time to think but the cherographer has so much time to think and plan.

Okay, so, here is the most important thing to understand about any choreographed combat you see in a television, movie, or even a play: choreography is a cooperative performance between two (or more) individuals. What you are watching is not a fight, it’s a performance designed to look convincing. If you want to see what combat looks like when people aren’t working together then go watch sparring videos on YouTube or MMA bouts.

Now, if your question is: can an expert tell when an actor in the fight scene doesn’t know what they’re doing?

Yes.

The role of the stuntman is to make the actor/their partner look incredible, to ensure they are the star of the scene, to cover for them when they blow their mark, to perform the dangerous stunts for them, and the professional stunt actors are very good at doing their job. They are so good that the average audience goer cannot tell when the stunt actor switches with the actor in the scene, or even when the same stunt actor is switching out for two different actors/actresses with completely different fighting styles on the same show if the show has a small budget.

However, you can’t take someone who has never done martial arts before and make them an expert in three months. Most actors with no history of martial training or training a completely separate martial art have a ton of tells, from shallow stances, poor foot position, hands too far apart, elbows akimbo, to physical tension (too tense, too loosey-goosey), lack of tightness in their punches/arms/legs/shoulders/chest, all upper body, no hip movement, lack of general body coordination, zero kinetic force or convincing presentation of, and when their stuntman/woman is switched in between the different shots. Most of the time, you’re not watching the actor do their own stunt fighting and there’s usually definitive differences between the two just by body type. Lastly, the tempo of stunt combat in the scene is much slower. The speed of a fight scene with an inexperienced actor doing most of their stunts is slower and less technically impressive than the average two man open combat form at a martial arts tournament.

Have you ever watched professional stunt actors show off all their skills in finely tuned choreographed glory? (I present you with Mortal Kombat Legacy: Kitana versus Melina, starting at 1:17.) You have if you’ve ever watched professional wrestling, or a Jackie Chan movie, or Jet Li, the cast of Into the Badlands, or The Expendables.

These fight scenes happen at a much higher tempo, with more complex action, more risky techniques which require much more physical control to be performed safely without risk of harming your partner. For example, the Kitana and Melina fight showcases a jump back kick, a jump wheel kick, and several coordinated flips/other acrobatics. These are not tricks you can safely ask an untrained actor to perform on screen, and their contracts usually won’t let them even if they can. These techniques require a lot of trust between working partners because there’s a much greater risk of injury than your standard roundhouse stage punch.

Again, if you don’t notice the difference, it’s because the stuntmen/women are doing their jobs. The onus is on them too make the scenes look good. They’re the ones who have the physical control to do the risky stunts, to do the falls, to make the hits look like hits without actually ever being hit. When you see your favorite character hit someone and they go spinning to crash land in the corner and it looks awesome? That’s the stunt actor.

Appreciate them.

Most fight scenes in television are not designed to be authentic, their first goal is to be entertaining.  The vast majority of fight scenes in movies and television have no relationship with the realities of, say, a sparring match. They’re performances meant to engage and enhance the viewer’s experience. In fact, general audiences decry films who have hewed closer to the real world in their combat choreography as boring. Realism is an obsession audiences develop when their suspension of disbelief is disrupted, or from a desire to know if what they see on screen could exist in real life.  Most people tend to think that the violence they see on screen is like violence in real life, and that makes sense because they are inundated with onscreen choreographed violence and have nothing to compare their experiences to.

However, believable and realistic are separate discussions. Most fight scenes in movies represent a human durability that is, quite frankly, superhuman. Even the best of them are not realistic, and that’s fine. Believable is what most movie fight scenes strive to be or else they disrupt your suspension of disbelief. There are fanboys who will swear up and down that the violence in The Dark Knight is realistic. The fight scenes in the movie don’t resemble reality at any passing glance, but the movie succeeded in convincing them that the violence within the fantasy was real or could be. That is the hallmark of a fight scene done well.

You believe the scene.

The scene enhanced your viewing experience.

You enjoyed it.

This is all the average movie is after.

When I write fight scenes, the above is all I care about. Did the scene serve its purpose within my narrative? Did it enhance the reader’s experience? Was it convincing within the setting rules I established? Did they enjoy it? I lean into stylized choreography in my fight scenes, and I use what I know to enhance what I create. When we tear back the curtain, what we find should enhance of our enjoyment rather than disappoint.

The takeaway here should be newfound appreciation for all the people who work so hard and risk so much to produce the entertainment media you enjoy.

So, remember Lauren Mary Kim, Amy Johnston, and all the other fabulous stuntwomen and stuntmen out there who’re making your fight sequences, stunts, and superhero movies convincing. Check out their work, maybe follow their Instagrams, their Twitters, watch their movies (like Lady Bloodfight and Accident Man), and subscribe to them on YouTube.

Do it.

-Michi

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Q&A: War Prince, Peace Prince, or Athletic Prince? What’s the world he lives in?

Should a crown prince character learn how to fight? On one hand, learning to fight could be seen as ‘we expect the crown prince to be put in a situation where he would need to fight’ which would mean his guards have failed. On the other hand, learning to use weapons could be treated more like a sport to build dedication, endurance, confidence, etc. Then again, I’ve seen references to princes fighting in history so I’m not sure how this should be handled/explained if I want a fighting prince.

Depends.

The only rule for the conqueror throughout most of history is you can have it if you can take it, and it’s only yours if you can hold onto it. The idea of kings and princes being insulated from combat is one which we come out of England at the end of Henry VIIIs reign and into the Elizabethan era, but it’s worth remembering that Henry VII took the crown by force. The word Normans comes from Northmen, and the original province of Normandy in France was given over to raiding Vikings led by a man called Rollo by the Frankish king under the agreement that they would protect the Frankish coast from other invaders. Many a king, prince, and nobleman has been created by simply having the biggest and baddest raiding force. In the Middle Ages, the king was expected to lead his forces into battle.

You know Richard III from Shakespeare’s eponymous play? The real one was killed on the battlefield by Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather at the end of the War of the Roses.

William the Conqueror, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Edward the Black Prince, Empress Maude, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Owain Fawr, Llewellyn the Great, Robert the Bruce,  Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and the list goes on.

You don’t have to justify it. History supports the conqueror prince and the conqueror king, and situations where the prince had to be able to fight because he was expected to lead his men into battle. If he couldn’t then someone else, a brother, a cousin, another nobleman, or even some nobody could swoop in and take the crown from him. You’ll find history is littered with instances like this.

So, here’s the real question: what kind of crown prince and setting are you imagining?

Is this the Fairy Tale Crown Prince? For all his trappings, the fictional fairy tale Crown Prince is post Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. He carries the aesthetics, but he’s not based on the warrior princes of Medieval Europe. This is the beginning of the modern era. When most people think about monarchies in terms of fairy tales, they’re essentially imagining Catherine the Great’s Russia without the guns. These are codified nations with standing militaries and treaties, which only go to war with each other frequently instead of constantly. Where the Crown Prince would be educated in the ways of the military, even be expected to serve in a ceremonial role, but never sets foot on the battlefield’s front lines. Similarly, this is also when the local nobility starts transitioning from warlords you need to appease to general rich dudes whose ancestors were great at killing people that you still need to appease.

The above is the Crown Prince you seem to be imagining.

Outside the Merchant Prince, who controls his kingdom through trade, the warrior Crown Prince is an auxiliary commander under his father or, in cases where the king is weak, the true commander of his countries forces. He’ll be landed in his own right as an earl or a duke with a province to rule over, his own vassals, lordlings, and young knights who strive to be in his service. He’s surrounded by followers and advisors with his own household and a vassal to his father, the king. He’s unlikely to be just sitting around spinning his heels until he takes the throne, unless he’s got a father who is very controlling about what powers he has access to.

This Crown Prince may seem appealing, but the world he exists in is cutthroat, rough and tumble. There’s none of the stability provided by the Treaty of Westphalia, which is the unnamed factor seen in modern fairy tale kingdoms. The chances of him fighting to keep his crown or simply fighting on the battlefield at some point in his life is a certainty rather than a maybe. He has to know how to fight and he has to be damn good at it or else it will end badly for him. This includes if he’s living in a world under the medieval warfare rules where there’s the possibility ransom. Kings, princes, warlords, and leaders are always priority targets on the battlefield. Everyone wants to kill or capture them because that ends the battle/raid/war.

They’re not just rich guys, they’re expected to be leaders of men. If they can’t do that, and they’re not supported by excellent nobles then they lose the crown, lose their land, or lose their empire. As has happened with many an unfortunate prince throughout history.

Even if you’re going for the type of Crown Prince seen in fiction and post-Westphalia, military service is often considered traditional and is expected. A modern example is our current British royal family, many of them have served in the British military in some capacity whether they saw combat or not; this includes Elizabeth II.

However, the question of whether your character should learn to fight or not is heavily dependent on the kind of setting they live in and the social expectations their role places them under. The legacy of his family, the number of generations they’ve held onto their throne. Then, there’s the question of who he is versus who he expects to be, the boy versus the prince and the man versus the king. He might be expected to be good at fighting, but he might not want to be. Is it necessary for him to be a skilled combatant? Or can he rule without the need for those skills? Does he want to be good at fighting? Does he enjoy it?

These are the sorts of questions that only you, the author can answer. The situation, the politics, and the world your character live in all affect the role he has inherited.

So, start sorting out that world. Pick a period in history where princes fought. Learn everything you can about that time period, and why they behaved the way they did.

Do you want an athletic prince? Do you want a warrior prince? Or both? Both are fine. Does your prince live in a war time or a peace time? Which of the two does he long for? Quiet or conquest? If he isn’t bound to a parliament or some other body of government his nobles use to control him then he has the power and resources to make either happen.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you.

– Michi

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Q&A: Practice, Practice Practice

Would learning to use a sword for the first time cause muscle fatigue or blisters? At what age should fantasy characters typically start learning? How long does it take to become ‘skilled’? For some reason I’m having trouble figuring out how to write a realistic progression.

There’s a certain level where this question can’t be answered because “fantasy” covers a vast range, and even medieval fantasy could cover a variety of different weapons that are all under the “sword” header. Besides that, the amount of time it takes for someone to become proficient depends on their dedication and opportunities for training.

The basic issue with writing a training sequence in fiction is that you are instructing the audience as well as the character. You have to write the teacher and student both. If you can’t do that, then you can’t write the scene. Teaching requires you have the knowledge necessary to, well, teach. If you don’t know then you need to learn, and learning requires a lot of work.

If you’ve never learned how to fight, never spent a lot of time acquiring a similar skill set, or never done any martial arts of any kind then, yes, you’ll have difficulty figuring out a realistic training progression that your character went through.

So, let’s start with something simple. The easiest way to figure out “realistic” progression is to:

A) Do your research on historical figures.

C) Do your research on the art of sword fighting. There’s a lot of great references available out there. I suggest starting with Skallagrim and Matt Easton.

B) Correlate to your own experiences.

Have you ever done sports? Even sports you were forced to do as part of high school gym class? Have you ever run a mile? You couldn’t get enough air, your muscles were killing you (including some you never knew existed), you wanted to die, some asshole teacher kept yelling at  you to hurry up, and you hated it?

In broad strokes, learning to fight is a lot like that and the people you hated in gym class like the teacher’s pets who enjoyed physical exercise and were really good at it because they were also athletes… those are the ones who’d be the good fighters in your story.

If you’ve never engaged in any other serious exercise then internalize your high school gym experiences. Especially the embarrassing, sweaty, tired, bloated, painful, red-faced, gasping parts or, you know, failing to do any pull ups at all when asked. Think about how much you hated pushups. Now, think about this, your character is going to be doing lots, and lots, and lots of those!

If your character gets to hold a sword during their first lesson (doubtful, but possible), it won’t be a real one. They’ll get a practice sword, which will either be made of wood or blunted metal.

Then, they’ll spend the entirety of that lesson learning how to stand, and (maybe) how to hold their practice sword.

Eastern martial arts like the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese martial curriculums won’t let you touch a weapon during the first four years of training. Many Chinese martial arts have a very specific progression between weapons because the techniques you learn feed into each other. The staff is the foundational weapon, then the sword, then upwards until you reach the chain weapons like the meteor hammer, dart, and whip chain which are the most difficult to control.

Western martial arts aren’t quite as structured, but they’re still structured. I’m going to assume this character is not some peasant farmer called up as a levy, who has a spear thrust into their hands and thrown out into battle to die for their lord. If you’re thinking of your character as a trained martial combatant, trained by someone be it the castle arms master or someone else, then they’re going to have to learn the basics, and those start with…

FOOTWORK!

This is the rule of all martial arts: if your foundation sucks then you’re going to die. Or, at the very least, you will lose.

You don’t start swinging a sword around, you start with your feet and your legs. You’ve got to learn to perform two actions at once, by moving your arm in a way that’s different from your legs, and combine both into a single movement then link them all together into a multitude of movements. You need to build up muscles in your calves, hamstrings, and thighs. You’ve got to develop balance. Balance starts with learning how to set your feet. You’ve got to have your stances or a stiff wind will blow you over.

You can’t just take blows, you need to learn how to, and the final arbiter of staying upright is not your arms or your upper body but your feet. A shallow stance means you cannot maintain your balance, bad footwork will let your enemy know you’re coming, and you’ll never reach them. You can’t close the distance.

Footwork is one of the main tells between a professional/trained fighter and an untrained fighter. Body position is ingrained from the beginning to the point where you no longer need to think about it.

When martial artists talk about foundation, they’re talking not just talking about basic techniques, they’re literally talking about where you put your feet.

Have you ever stood with your knees bent at a forty-five degree angle, leaning forward onto the balls of your feet for one to two, much less five to ten minutes? If not, then yes, you will experience muscular fatigue.

Now, let’s get to…

CONDITIONING!

You gotta build that endurance.

The average fight will only last around thirty seconds, but you will be sprinting all out. You may be fighting multiple small battles in a large engagement, and when your body gives out then you die.

What most people mistake about swords is the idea that they’re heavy. They’re not. However, keeping two to four pounds in continuous motion for a couple minutes much less the length of a full fledged melee is exhausting. You want to run in a flat out sprint for thirty minutes? No. No, you don’t.

So, what does this mean? A large portion of your character’s early (and later) training will involve conditioning similar to what you experienced in gym class in the beginning, and grow ever more intense!

You will do your morning exercises and stretches to loosen up your muscles (because starting cold is asking for injury), then go on your jog, then you get to practice techniques, then go on another run, get a bout of conditioning, then run up a hill, and then finish up with end of day stretches before eating dinner and falling into bed.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

The point of conditioning is not to push you past what you’re capable of, but to push you past what you think you’re capable of. Building wind and muscle requires work, practicing your techniques when you’re tired helps you learn to push through exhaustion, and you need repetition to ingrain these techniques into your muscle memory to the point they become instinctive reactions. You get used to your muscles being tired so you can force them to work when you need them.

Conditioning is a training ladder, you find a variety of humps to get over, and after you manage past each then training gets easier for a short period, then more gets added and you start all over again.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

You will do those basics over and over and over and over and over and over again before you ever get to try them on another live human being, and when you finally get to they will be slowly structured by a one two three count breakdown where the entire attack is broken apart, then you get to do it at slow speed, then half-speed, then full-speed, and then one day in the far flung future you’ll get to spar. Not with a real sword, but with a blunted training sword and in padded gear so you don’t kill your partner.

Proficiency is Practice, Practice Takes Time

How fast does it take for someone to become proficient? At the very least, in a couple of months you could train someone to be infantry fodder. Consider this, a medieval knight began his education at the age of seven and was considered battlefield ready by the age of twenty-one. He probably saw combat before then as a squire when he became one at fourteen, but we’re looking at a training period of seven years for live combat training and seven years prior for general education. So, timetable necessary to produce a combat elite is fourteen years.

Now, the average knight knew how to do a lot more than swing a sword. He could handle a variety of weaponry, could fight on horseback, and presumably hold a leadership position over his lord’s infantry. A knight is a combat elite.

Your character who started training at eighteen will be overrun by the guy who started training at seven. They have a decade of training and battlefield experience on the other guy.

The men and women in their thirties are crazy good.

Masters have been doing this for thirty to forty years.

You should decide early on how good you want your character to be and plan their backstory accordingly. It’s fine if they’re not at the top, but it’s worth understanding that combat is baked into warrior cultures like the vikings or the germanic tribes. Their kids practiced spear throwing by throwing sticks back and forth as a game, then graduated as adults to catching javelins and throwing them back at Roman legionaries.

Development of Skill Requires Desire and Dedication

How quickly your character progresses will depend on their desire and their dedication. The person who wants to do this will progress faster than the person who doesn’t, who slacks off, and does the bare minimum. All the natural talent in the world won’t change that.

This is the problem a lot of fantasy novels and YA novels face with the protagonist versus their training rival. The training rival is often the guy working harder than the protagonist, especially when they don’t want to be there. A lot of the time, there’s no legitimate reason for the best in class training rival to even feel threatened by these protagonists. They’re no threat to them or their position in the class, and I use “threat” loosely.

I have a lot of experience with the kids in training classes who don’t want to be there. Trust me, as someone who once was one and who was their instructor, they don’t progress. Most of them quit at the earliest opportunity. The ones with a lot of natural talent who just put in the bare minimum because everything is easy end up middling to mediocre if not plain bad.

Physical training is pretty much 90% mental, which means you don’t become good just by showing up. You choose to commit. You chase excellence. You choose to push through the exhaustion and pain by sheer willpower. Most importantly, you don’t give up. You’re defined by tenacity, and your willingness to push past what you believe to be possible.

The guy or girl who is the best is the one who shows up to class earliest and leaves last. They eat, sleep, and dream their training.

Top level athletes are the ones who have sacrificed everything to their craft. The younger they are, then the more time they’ve devoted to that singular aspect of their life at the expense of everything else.

This is what they want.

So, decide early what your actual goal is for this character and their level of skill. Then, you need go learn about different kinds of swords, training, sports education, etc. Once you have those two things, it’ll be easier to figure out the rate your character progresses at.

-Michi

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Q&A: Where do I begin? Anywhere you want.

Hi I can’t decide the timeline to start story. What should be the main event in story?

You included either a lot of backstory or potential plot hooks for your narrative in the question, all of which have the potential to be very interesting stories in their own right, and that’s why we’re going to talk about something else.

Where do I start my story?

This is the question a lot of authors wrestle with and the answer is surprisingly simple — anywhere you want.

You don’t even need to start writing at the start of your story, you can start writing the middle first, or even the ending, and then start from the beginning once you know where you’re going. When I get stuck, I often write the parts in the future which I find interesting and work my way towards it because that gives me a point to aim for.

You have to start somewhere, so start with what interests you.

If you find yourself getting caught up in massive details for a fantasy setting spread across multiple dimensions and lifetimes then… write the ideas down, make note of them, fill up your notebooks with all that detail for your setting bible. That way, you can always come back to it later for more inspiration. Once you’ve done that, move on to your characters. Take a moment to step away from the big world changing events, but on the individuals in your story. The ones who will ultimately be the driving force behind these events.

These smaller, individual stories are the ones which carry the overarching plot and a narrative that could encompass anything from multiple books, or simply be the epic backstory of just one.

So, who interests you? The great hero at the height of their reign? The Rise of the Big Bad? The hero reincarnated into a new world, scrabbling to put together the pieces of their past life? Or, is it someone else? The rebellious general who realizes the evil they serve isn’t creating the world they hoped for? A young scribe keeping notes in the halls of an evil sorcerer  who steals the mcguffin and runs off to join the rebels? A battered, down on their luck bounty hunter after the relic so they can sell it to the highest bidder? A frustrated and angry high school student stuck in a small world, who dreams of a more fantastical one, where they’re the hero winth incredible powers, who wants the world they’ve seen in their dreams, but when those dreams become a reality realizes it might be more than they ever bargained for?

Epic narratives (rather than epics, the genre) can come from any narrative. The bounty hunter could be hunting the scribe, who could wind up on a buddy/road trip adventure as they carry a mystical object toward their world’s salvation or destruction. This could be an epic narrative filled with humor, potential romance, and heartache. Or, it could be cliche.

The story could be cliche, or it could be fantastic, it might even be cliche and fantastic. (This is, frankly, my favorite type of story.)

You won’t know until you sit down and start writing it.

You won’t know until you’ve finished your first draft. (All first drafts are terrible.)

You won’t know until you’ve restructured the whole thing in your second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts.

You may end up with a story wildly different from the one you imagined when you first sat down to write. This is part of why the place where you start doesn’t need to be your beginning. Writing is a journey of self-discovery, a discovery of your own creative process.

So, pick somewhere. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect character, or the right place. You can end up at right and perfect, but you can’t expect right and perfect in the beginning. You can accept messy, clumsy, and unsure. Trust yourself to get to the gem you imagine inside your mind, keep working at it and you will. Remember that what you read from a published novel is the end result of a product polished to a shine. Where we start is with a diamond, or even a rock full of diamonds we’ll need to chip out of the mountain before we can show them off. Creation is often a messy, embarrassing process filled with horror, joy, and terror. There may occasionally be hair pulling and screaming. You’ll give yourself a lot more grief trying to avoid this, than you will by just embracing it.

You don’t have to write in a straight line.

You do write one line at a time.

So, start writing.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing The Tournament

I’m writing a story about a fighting tournament, but I’m not especially familiar with tourney structures except for video games. What are common martial arts tournament formats? I think double-elimination ought to work well for my story because it can get so dramatic, but there might be something else more suitable.

This is a pretty good breakdown on martial arts bracket systems used in tournaments.

I’m going to spend this post talking about how tournaments and the martial arts tournament genre works in a narrative context. This includes more than your protagonist, but your role in tournament management because you’re going to need to be all the parts in order for this to work. After all, the one who structures the tournament is you. If you’ve never actively participated in tournaments, any tournaments, or done anything behind the scenes when it comes to structuring them then going complex upfront will result in your narrative spinning wildly out of control.

The Tournament Brackets Are Your Plot

In a martial arts tournament narrative every match up is a character building exercise. The fights are the catharsis to the tension building between rivals and friends in the story. Each fight is the culmination of a smaller plot running parallel to the primary narrative. These are the not just the physical challenges the protagonist overcomes in chasing their dream of winning a championship, but also challenges their morals, their emotions, and their intelligence. Each fight is a building block toward the final conflict, resulting in the protagonist becoming a stronger and more well-rounded person as they are challenged to address their flaws in both fighting style and in their character.

Each of these fights are a very important step on the rung toward victory where the greatest challenge awaits. Every fallen friend, rival, rival-friend, enemy turned friend, and friend turned enemy is a just one more means to forge your protagonist in fire.  Each match up is carefully structured to maximize the drama, and provide unique challenges to the protagonist. Seeing the protagonist overcome these challenges is what makes the fight interesting, not the fight itself.

You should consider how many small character dramas you have it in you to write in addition to your main plots as we cycle upwards, the necessary subplots for other important rival characters and matches needed to establish these rivals as a legitimate threat before the protagonist faces off with them.

The tournament is your basic plot outline. Like with seeding in a real tournament, you’re going to want to be meticulous about your match ups before you sit down to write. You need to know who if fighting whom and how that turned out, including some specific events which can reach your protagonist in whispers even if you don’t show any of it on screen.

Drama is Created By Characters

I’m going to make this point upfront because I see the thought process with double elimination, but don’t make the mistake of assuming the tournament structure will do the work for you. An exciting tournament, whether fictional or in real life, is the result of someone’s hard work. In the real world, this is multiple people. In your novel, this is just you and whomever you roped in to help you build all the characters you’ll need for this story to function.

Unless you’re really good at writing fight scenes, and you better be if you’re writing a martial arts tournament, and even if you are, you’ve got to take time to establish a whole bunch of characters who’ll be important friends and rivals. You’re going to need extra chapters between your fight chapters to establish the character dynamics, so your audience can become invested in what happens to the major players.

Single Elimination

The tournament brackets are the layout of your plot, and this is the reason why Single Elimination is the popular choice for tournaments in both real life and fiction.

32 Characters = 6 Matches for your protagonist.

64 characters = 7 matches.

This translates to about six chapters to seven, this gives you a lot of time to focus on the other characters like your character’s rivals, future rivals, take a look at the next challenger, watch a match, get to know our other characters, develop friendships, and a whole bunch of other necessary stuff during the downtime between fights.

You can devote a lot of time to building up each of the fights as their own mini-narratives in a 70,000-80,000 word novel, and not feel as pressed for time with getting a lot of different fight scenes or character narratives jammed in.

Double Elimination

So, with double elimination, the most important aspect to understand is that if the protagonist loses any match then the highest they’ll end up is usually around third place.

You’ll have twice as many matches as single elimination, which means you have that many more fights to write. A protagonist goes from having around 6 to 7 matches to 12 to 14, plus the extra matches you’ll need to put together for the rivals and friends. Which, if you’ve never put together a match up between two characters, is a lot more work with a lot less time for ancillary detail. The lower brackets constantly fill up as more players lose, everyone gets at least two fights which is great for martial arts tournaments where you’re putting them together primarily for experience. This is about half your 70,000 to 80,000 word novel (if you want to get it published) of twenty to thirty chapters devoted to one character’s fights with less time for the build up your other necessary characters.

Remember, the novel’s secondary characters are important to keeping your tournament functional. In a double elimination system where you’re defeated twice you’re out, there’s no reason to pit the same person against the person who defeated them.

The attraction of the Double Elimination to most writers is going to be the idea of the protagonist getting knocked into the elimination bracket early by their rival and then being forced to fight their way up through that entire bracket for a second match against the rival who defeated them. Then, this time, they finally win.

Except, if you allow this to happen in real life then you create a situation where there are no victors because no one finished the tournament undefeated.

In real life, the second bracket has its own final which decides third place and the person who was previously eliminated will most likely never fight someone from that first bracket again. This kills the idea of rival revenge.

Rival revenge should be based on actions that happen in previous tournaments, the next tournament down the line, or actions taken outside the tournament, but not within the tournament itself.

Have I mentioned you need to be really good at writing fight scenes?

Round Robin, (See Also: Swiss and Dutch)

Everybody fights everybody.

This one probably won’t appeal as it is a points based competition where everyone keeps fighting until someone wins. It is a popular set up in smaller tournaments, particularly for sparring, which lets students get a lot of tournament sparring practice. It is really easy for the fights to get unbalanced early, and you essentially calculate the bouts based on the number of participants.

This is a very long tournament, multiday to multiweek, and you’d most likely be cutting a lot of it out from your narrative (though you’d still need to keep track of what happened in those other bouts.) This format is primarily for soccer and similar sports, while swiss is chess.

I don’t suggest non-elimination formats for martial arts.

Visual versus Written

It is worth understanding that the martial arts tournament genre is primarily designed for a visual medium. In this case, showcasing all the fights is important because your audience is there for the experience. Establishing unique visual motifs for each character is important because it makes the scenes more visually engaging when you’re watching these characters get slapped around. We see more than we need to, yes, but that visual stimulation is part of why people watch martial arts movies or the shounen anime fighting genre like Yu Yu Hakusho, Boku no Hero Academia, or Dragon Ball Z.

You don’t get access to any of this when you’re writing.

Your characters are going to be the driving force behind the drama in a written tournament narrative, and you can’t cheat off visual stimulation provided by skilled stunt actors or vibrant artistic explosions. The fight scenes are not the focus, you can’t expect them to hold the audience’s attention, they’re an extension of the character drama occurring within the narrative itself. This means a narrowed focus on one or two characters with a meticulous and careful structuring of character experiences.

The second problem posed by anime in structure is that the fights are designed to pad out an entire season, or an entire manga arc, which, from a written perspective, encompasses multiple books. In a manga, preparations for the preliminaries are an arc (novel), getting to the preliminaries is an arc (novel), the preliminaries are an arc (arc), then the first stages before finals are an arc, and then we get to the finals which are often an arc in and of themselves. So, if you pace your story like an anime then you get about five novels. They’re set up as serialized stories.

For a novel, you need to focus. You’ll do a lot of work in setting the whole tournament up, and the novel will show about a 1/3 or less of it because there’s a lot of stuff we don’t need to know about.

Character Progression Match Ups: Establish Your Rules.

The primary reason for establishing multiple fighting styles for various characters is to help create an unbalance or underdog status for the protagonist. However, in a written format you don’t get access to the tension built by one character primarily wielding fists versus someone who is a kicker in a mixed martial arts tournament. You’ll need a solid grasp of your protagonist’s fighting style, taking into consideration both its flaws and weaknesses. A better grasp you have on combat then the easier this will be for you.

You’ll also need to decide on how someone designates a win. Most martial arts tournaments are points based with different points being assigned based on the type of hit or difficulty of the technique. Taekwondo sparring matches assign one point for basic punches to the torso, two for basic kicks to the torso, three for a kick to the head, and technical kicks score more.

The various strategies your characters use will be based on the type of competition, though they will come up with different strategies based on their own preferred tactics. An example is that technical kicks in Taekwondo like spin kicks are more risky than basic kicks, and a more careful character might not use them even when they score higher. A character who is behind in their point count might feel pressed to use riskier attacks to get the five points off a single kick even though that is more difficult to pull off.

Your protagonist and their antagonists will devise strategies based off the rules. So, you’ve got to establish what those rules are and what constitutes a win.

Is it a forced concession like a tap out?

Is it getting knocked outside the right?

Is it a point based system scored on how well a character performs like in Taekwondo, Boxing, and Muay Thai? What does that point system look like?

Is it getting knocked out?

Is it death?

Are there places they can’t hit which result in penalties and eliminations? Is this no holds barred?

Does this tournament allow weapons?

What protective gear do they wear?

There are a lot of considerations to take into account, and for that reason I do suggest starting with a Single Elimination set up. It’ll be pretty easy to upgrade to Double when you get comfortable or run out of space, though I wouldn’t worry too much about not having enough fights or interesting fights. If you have that problem then adding more won’t actually help you.

Each fight match up with your protagonist is a cornerstone in your narrative, a point of character progression, a realization they have about themselves which helps them come away stronger and more prepared for the endgame. If you haven’t been looking at the fight scenes you planned for your novel in this way, then you should consider starting.

There’s not really much difference between an underdog starting from the bottom and never losing versus an underdog losing and fighting up from the bottom all over again except how well you did with the concept the first time round. Losing a fight is not a great way to get people invested in a character if they weren’t already. Besides, in a real world setup they’d never see that rival they lost to again.

Also, you need to be really good at writing fight scenes.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Sword is King of Mid Range Melee

We got a bunch of sword questions all in a row that don’t require particularly detailed answers, so I figured we could do them all together for efficiency.

So are swords really useful/practical weapons, or just iconic/popular for media and fiction?

The sword is one of the best weapons mankind has ever designed for killing other humans. While there are other weapons we could focus on (like the staff, spear, and other longarms that don’t get enough love), don’t fool yourself in selling the sword short.  This weapon has ruled as a fixture of combat since it’s invention, and only recently fell out of popular use. We know this because of how enduring the sword is throughout history and with countless cultures across the globe who all developed their own variants then refined, refined, refined them until we finally outdid ourselves by developing the gun. Even then, we’ve had guns since roughly the late Middle Ages, and it’s only in the past 100 years or so that swords have really fallen off as the preferred sidearm used in addition to other combat weapons. The sword was also a weapon of self-defense in Europe, and wasn’t just a weapon of the upper class.

The 20th century still saw swords being fielded as part of mounted cavalry units, and were used right up until WWI where they became obsolete in the face of modern weaponry.

The sword is the preeminent king of mid range melee combat.

Weapons endure because they are useful. Weapons are discarded when they are no longer useful, or no longer appropriate to the threats faced on the battlefield.

This is the rule of the weapons. It doesn’t matter how cool they look if you’re dead. If the weapon doesn’t work then cast it off. Weapons that no longer fit the combat of the day get you killed.

The ironic truth is that the sword is actually a much better, more well rounded, and versatile weapon than popular media makes it out to be. It is also a much lighter weapon than popular media would have you believe, which means there is no strength requirement. They weigh less than your average housecat, and a lot less than your laptop.  If your protagonist can’t lift two to four pounds then they’ve got bigger problems than just one weapon.

Some sword variants are more specialized than others, and are designed around specific battlefield functions. Not all swords are created equal, and some will work far better in some circumstances than others. It is very important that you view weapons from different time periods in terms of scientific advancement and ever changing battlefield requirements.

Your protagonists are doing more than accessorizing when they choose a weapon or martial art. Suitable is decided by the world they live in and the threats they face, and then, after a host of other practical considerations, by what appeals to them.

not sure how many questions you get like this and i’m sorry is it’s been asked, but world a dagger be effective with someone with a sword. would a weapon like Asuma’s from naruto actually be useful

Asuma wields a real weapon that saw use in real combat, primarily in the trenches of WWI. The weapon is called a trench knife. One part knife, one part knuckleduster or brass knuckles, this weapon excels in tight, close quarters combat. The name itself should be a  dead giveaway for the purpose it served in combat. This is an aid for hand to hand combat, and therefore not particularly useful against swords because the person with the trench knife risks getting cut to pieces by the sword wielder before they ever get into the range their knife is suitable for.

This is, in essence, the problem for knives or daggers versus swords. In a straight up fight, the sword has the range to attack at will while the person with the dagger is forever on the offensive with no means to break past them. You don’t have the option to attack, while they can attack you whenever they feel like it. Swords face similar problems against long arms like staves and spears.

This is a martial concept called range. Range is dictated by the distance it takes for you to reach your opponent versus the distance it takes for them to reach you. Range matters most when dealing with weapons. A common misconception about range is how much that distance given by height matters in hand to hand.

The end of this story is you’ll need to kill the guy with the sword before he has the chance to get his pants on, which actually makes a knife like the trench knife the perfect weapon for an assassin like Asuma. After all, they never planned to give you the option of fighting back. The knife is the “surprise! death!” weapon, and one of the fastest combat weapons from hit to kill.

Would a left-handed knight fight with their sword in their left hand and their shield in their right? I’m writing a left-handed character who fights with sword and shield, and I want to be aware of any advantages/disadvantages such a style will give them.

Listen to me when I say this, the shield is a weapon. That is the most important lesson I have to teach you about the sword/shield combination. The sword is a weapon, the shield is also a weapon. You can hit people with it. You can also kill people with it. More importantly, you can use it as a tool to lock up your enemy’s weapon  and kill them with your primary weapon. This is an active, not a passive, article working in conjunction with your sword and a defined part of your character’s strategy in their approach to combat.

The sword/shield is an offensive combo, not a defensive one. Video games and DnD will teach you that the shield is only good for defense. You’ll find people everywhere, including those giving advice on the shield outside the HEMA community who will parrot that assumption. It is a lie.

As with anything, the combo can be used defensively but you’re not actually giving up your offensive opportunities. You are, in fact, maximizing them by giving yourself one more means to break through your enemy’s defenses. You are dual wielding, and the off-hand shield serves a similar purpose for what you’d be doing with a second weapon like a knife or sword in that off-hand and with less risk of the two getting caught cross-ways of each other. The shield lets you be bolder in your attacks because you have more defense, but you’re not just going to sit there in the midst of battle and turtle like an MMO tank. No, you’re going to be proactive. More defense gives you more options to be aggressive because there are fewer risks involved.

What you sacrifice is the extra power, finesse, speed, and control lent by the second hand (your non-dominant hand) on two handed weapons like the long sword. This is the drawback: you give up the power, precision, fine control, and utility of a single weapon. Note, power does not mean strength in the way you imagine. That second hand is needed as a lever to provide your weapon with greater momentum than you can achieve with a single hand or arm. The front hand or gripping hand is the guiding hand and the back hand or the hand on the pommel is the power hand. You’ve limited yourself to attacks based on the movements of that single arm,and the power you can generate from that arm. You’ve also given up the utility provided by your off-hand for the shield.

In martial arts, the off-hand or the non-dominant hand is the control hand or the utility hand. It is much more important than your power hand, in fact losing your non-dominant hand is much more catastrophic as a fighter than losing your dominant one. The control hand lacks the power of the dominant hand, but because it’s harder to learn to control the side your worse with due to that hand being less natural during training you end up developing a lot of fine motor control. You use this hand to strike, to defend, to grab,  and create openings for strikes with the power hand.

Martial artists are mostly ambidextrous by necessity, all the parts of your body are going to be used. A character who is left-hand dominant will actually use their right hand in combat more often than their left, and vice versa is true. I’m right handed, but my left will almost always strike first. This is the side I predominately turn to for any and all utility. This is the opposite of my regular life, where my right is doing most of the work.

A left-handed person will use their dominant hand in a fight, but that doesn’t mean their right is useless. Their non-dominant hand is one of the most important combat assets they have. This is their defense hand, their blocking hand, the set-up hand, the fast striking hand, the risk-taker hand that seizes for joint locks. The non-dominant hand is the one with all the finesse. This is why the finesse hand/arm holds the shield, you’ll be taking complex actions with it.

This is going to be a backwards way of thinking if you’ve never done martial arts. Your dominant hand is not the hand that’s better at “doing things”. The dominant hand is the power hand, the finisher hand, it’s really good at hitting harder than the non-dominant hand which is why you want it handling your sword.

A left handed person can have an advantage over someone who is right handed because the left hand being dominant is less common than the right hand, and therefore someone who is right handed encounters left handed fighters less often. However, a left hand dominant fighter is nowhere near rare enough to hang your character’s hat on that as a decided advantage over the other warriors they encounter.

Writing combat with weapons requires an entire re-framing of what popular culture has taught you about combat, including concepts like “strength”. Power is not created by physical strength, but by momentum. Momentum is generated through proper technique. Proper technique is developed through training. Weapons are, by and large, not heavy because physically heavy weapons are difficult to wield for prolonged periods and you might have to fight for prolonged periods. A weapon you can’t wield is useless to you, and one which wears you out quickly is actively dangerous to you.  You don’t need a weapon to weigh much in order to generate the momentum necessary to kill another human being.

You’ll notice weapons like the warhammer and the morning star put most of their weight in the head of the weapon. Why? Not because you need to be physically strong to wield them, but to aid the wielder in generating more momentum on that downward swing.

Is a baseball bat heavy? Your answer should be no.

Someone in armor, with a shield and a sword has the opportunity to take more risks than the person without those. This leads to them being more aggressive, rather than less. That defense serves the specific purpose of allowing you to take actions you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Knights in heavy armor were both highly mobile and incredibly versatile, they weren’t slowed down much by that armor.

Weapons aren’t just an aesthetic choice for your character,  they’re designed with a specific purpose in mind. Most of what those weapons were designed for will, on occasion, actively roll against the grain of how they’re presented in popular fiction or used in video games. There’s a lot of missing nuance, strategy, and tactics in the application of a dice roll.

-Michi

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Q&A: In Fiction, the Groin Strike Proves Freud Right

How can i expose someone’s groin for a strike?

So, the groin strike is one of the most oversold attacks in fiction. You don’t “expose” anything. There’s not some secret or special means of getting there, it’s not particularly well protected (except when your opponent is wearing a cup, in which case… yeah, very well protected); it’s just a matter of being close enough to hit.

The groin strike with the knee features prominently in self-defense because it is:

A) easy.

B) You start within grappling range.

In most self-defense scenarios you will be defending yourself from someone who is already close enough to touch you. Someone who is standing right next to you. When you are facing them, the knee to the groin makes sense. It’s a reflexive and easy strike,  and relatively well hidden when they’re focused on something else. You can even play along, put your arms around their neck (with one hand strategically positioned on the back of their head to take control), and… bam. Knee to the groin.

However, like all pressure point strikes, the knee to the groin is a stunner and not a finisher. Whoever you hit with it will recover rapidly, which is why we combine it with other strikes.

Now, the knee to the face can be performed in the same range, and featured as the finisher in a combination with a groin strike. Again, the groin strike is not a “finish them” technique. It’s a distracting technique which opens up better protected parts of the body. You grab the other person by the back of their head, and drive their face down into your rising knee.

And… that’s about the extent of what we do with the groin.

You can kick someone there. You can punch someone there.

Both cases are more a matter of having poor aim or taking someone by surprise than a test of skill. The strike is an opportunistic one, not a dedicated martial move requiring a lot of setup because the move is risky. It doesn’t require a particular amount of skill either, you mostly just have to hit it hard enough to get lucky in clipping the nerve cluster. The issue with the groin strike is more that it’s considered a “dishonorable” move, which leads people to assume it’s a super effective one. They put it on par with throwing sand in someone’s face, but other dirty moves like throwing sand in someone’s eyes is actually much more effective as a battle tactic. There are better places to hit someone which lead to long term damage.

The short answer on exposing the groin is you don’t. You actually don’t need to because the strikes are not nearly as effective as Hollywood insists. Also, outside backroom bar brawls, most men (and women) actually do wear protection when engaging in actual combat or sparring scenarios. That protection is called the cup otherwise known as the jockstrap.

You don’t need to do anything special other than be close enough to pull off the hit. However, the question becomes why aim there? If you can get a better result from performing a front kick or a push kick into the stomach when you’ve exposed your opponent’s defenses then you’d aim there instead. The stomach has a lot of nerve endings too, you can forcibly disrupt the diaphragm, and hit a fair number of major organs. You get everything you’d get from hitting someone in the groin and more with results that last for a longer period of time.

In a friendly bout scenario, like in sparring sessions, hitting someone in the nether regions is frowned upon (especially if not accidental) and clipping occurs often enough that the intelligent wear protection.

In a self-defense scenario, a groin strike won’t be enough to stop your enemy in their tracks.

In a combat scenario, a groin strike suffers similar problems with the added benefit of likely being protected by actual armor.

Discussing groin strikes in fiction usually revolves around men, usually specifically around heterosexual women hitting heterosexual men in their “weak spot”. (If you never realized that sex is what this specific joke is about in fiction then I’m sorry, and, yes, this is a way to hypersexualize your female fighter. Why do you ask?) However, it is worth noting that groin strikes work on women.

If you write female fighters or just female characters in general, please do not fall for this bit of fiction about groin strikes. In the world of popculture fantasy, they’re just a means of proving Freud right. Everything is about titillation and the genitals.

In the real world, and I say this as someone with extensive experience in martial arts, the groin is not some secret weak point that must be defended at all costs. The groin is either convenient or just meh.

-Michi

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Q&A: Short Fighters and Centers of Gravity

any specifics to be mindful of on writing a very short fighter? like under five feet tall? i don’t necessarily mean children, just like, ppl who are short

I’m going to discuss writing short combatants below, but I want to make it clear. What I’m going to be discussing is about adults, not children. You want to set a clear distinction between the two in your mind right now. Children are their own category, broken down into several separate categories of roughly 1-5, 6-8, 9-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19. Segment them out by age categories, break apart older and younger teens, and keep a beat for mental/intellectual/emotional maturity in line with their physical growth rates. Children are different from adults, and different ages face different challenges.

When you’re writing children, you need to take their age into consideration, the fact they’re bodies are still changing and growing, the fact their minds are maturing. They don’t have the same capacity as adults, the understanding, or the ability to utilize their experiences to the same degree. The problems for children are not just in their size, but in their brains, in the softness of their bones, in the bodies that are constantly changing, emotions only just emerging, which combined with a lack of experience and maturity often put them at a significant disadvantage.

A twelve year old who is set against a seasoned killer faces a lot more problems than just a height difference, would face those same challenges even if they were the same height.

Now, let’s talk about short fighters. They’re not much difference from anyone else, nothing more than a different set of natural advantages, that may not even mean much in the grand scheme. Spend too much time obsessing on physiological differences and you’ll end up thinking they’re the only thing that matters. There’s not that much difference between someone who is 4″10 versus someone who is 5″1 or 5″2 in terms of combat.

What you want to understand about the size of humans is that the benefits are mostly in the mind. There are a lot of culturally defined stereotypes, conventional wisdom, and cries of “realism” when it comes to martial combat that are complete bunk. The perception that short people are at an automatic disadvantage is one of them. Every body type comes with their own strengths and weaknesses, learning to compensate for the weaknesses and take advantage of the strengths is what training is all about. You’re going to need to throw out most of your internalized prejudices and start over. You’ll find you’re full of biases when you really get down to thinking about it,  ones you’ve subconsciously picked up over the years, and, I want to make this very clear, addressing them doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

Center of Gravity – People who are short are closer to the ground. This is important because  the center of gravity is your body’s balance point. This is your body’s point of stability, and useful to know about for a large variety of exercises. This point changes based on each individual human being, with constant motion, and is somewhat subjective. So, everyone has to locate this point within themselves and find their own individual balance.-

However, what you need to know about for the purpose of this question is: Short people are very difficult to knock over if they know how to create their base and set their weight.

Now, the center of gravity in a man versus in a woman are physiologically different. A man’s is located in his chest, and a woman’s is approximately in her pelvis. Physiological differences mean men and women will show progress in different exercises more quickly because they’re more naturally inclined toward them. A woman’s balance point being lower lends itself to more stability in the lower body. From a practical perspective, what this means is that a man has to spread his legs wider and get lower in his stances in order to achieve the same physical stability as his female counterpart, and likewise a tall man has to bend his knees more than a short guy for similar results.

This is a taught advantage, not a natural advantage.

What does this mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean much of anything except that short people are naturally better at grappling than taller people. If they know how to set their feet and get down low then good luck throwing them. You won’t pick them up. They’re not going anywhere. After all, throws are not strength based (someone who is tall is not necessarily going to be stronger than someone who is short) but are instead dependent on destabilizing your opponent’s base (the position of their feet, and stance) then utilizing their own force against them.

Someone who is short is much closer to the earth than someone who is tall, and this advantage lends them more stability. Weight isn’t weight, and strength isn’t strength. The martial arts battle is primarily over an ever-shifting balance point and breaking your opponent’s stability. You’ve got to work harder to get them to fall over.

The Intimidation Station – Tall people can be naturally intimidating, because conventional wisdom says they are. Intimidation happens in the mind. However, short people can be intimidating, because intimidation comes from presence, not physicality.

Here’s something to keep in mind when writing short characters: When you’re short, you live in a world of tall. You’re used to being (physically) looked down on. These characters will have been learning to compensate (if they need to) from day one, so the idea they’ll fall apart while facing off against someone significantly taller than they are is silly… really silly. They’ll be more used to fighting tall people than someone who generally fights people of equal height or mild differences. If you’re used to constantly being at a “disadvantage” then that state becomes normal and you learn to just roll with it.

Aggression – Short fighters can be, but are not uniformly, or always more aggressive combatants, and women are often more actively aggressive in combat than men. This doesn’t mean they have more aggressive personalities, but they can be much more pro-active when it comes to rolling over into an offensive mode.

Reach – You’ll hear this one brought up a lot, mostly by people who don’t really understand the concept. Reach matters more with weapons than with bodies.

I hear a lot of writers searching for “natural” advantages, or see an over reliance on those perceived advantages in fiction. The reality of success lies with technique and hard work, not the body you were born with or the talents you were gifted with. You’ve got to polish what you have. In hand to hand, there are plenty of ways to compensate for a difference in height. The primary means of overcoming distance is footwork, not the length of your arms or legs.

Mind Over Matter – In terms of physiology, the rules aren’t hard and fast. They’re not black and white. There’s no can and can’t. There’s mind over matter, mind over internalized biases, and mind over perceived impossibilities. What there isn’t is magic. No matter who they are, your character will never be suddenly amazing or skip all the perilous trials of learning. There’s pain, yes, embarrassment, frustration, and failures, which are all part of building character. Skill requires training and practice. It’s difficult, it takes time, and you’ll need to do a lot of pushing past what you believe to be physically possible (rather than what is) before you’re done.

What your character perceives about their own abilities and their actual abilities are not one and the same, the same is true of their potential. The hill may seem impossible from the bottom, but we progress up it one step at a time.

Here’s one last thing to keep in mind:

They’re short. So, what?

-Michi

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Q&A: Metafiction; the story inside the story inside the story inside the… uh… yeah.

Bungou Stray Dogs has a mafia that uses a few teenage characters with useful/deadly powers. Any tips on making them realistic in fanfiction without being weak or useless? There IS trauma involved but trauma doesn’t always show up immediately/in readily recognizable ways especially in teenagers. The characters also have varying levels of maturity and ambition. Even if it’s wrong, it wouldn’t make sense for the CRIMINAL boss to NOT use teens if they could be useful even on the short term.

Okay, so, this is a very defensive question. You’re asking for tips, but arguing on the tips you expect us to give you. There’s a mistaken assumption that criminals don’t use teens because it’s morally wrong, and not because it’s, well, bad for staying in business because teenagers are less reliable than seasoned professionals for mob hits, or that’s just a lot of responsibility to trust to someone so young. Criminal organizations do use children, they just don’t usually use them to do anything important (like kill people.)

There’s even all caps.

None of that is important though. We’re talking about an anime where Herman Melville transforms into the ghost of Orson Welles and takes off into the night sky. The entire argument you’re trying to make just isn’t applicable. So, let’s talk about a very special genre called metafiction instead.

Bungou Stray Dogs is both an anime, and a piece of metafiction. When discussing how this piece of media handles its characters or structures its plots, realism is not even a tertiary concern.  The anime doesn’t care. If you’re writing fanfiction in the world created by this medium neither should you. Now, let’s talk about about this small piece of the literary genre called metafiction; where there is a contextual narrative within the narrative based entirely on your familiarity with the other narratives being referenced.

Let me drop this in front of you,

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
If you are a someone who came out of an education system from a former British colony you should have some passing recognition of this stanza, even if you don’t know who the author is.  (Or, you slept through you’re high school English classes.) This is from William Blake’s “The Tyger“, and, no, this isn’t just a literary joke based on the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs transforms into a tiger under the moonlight. No, this is a reference to the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs is named after Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima, who was a fan of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphisis” and whose story “Sangetsuki” features a man who transforms into a tiger. “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…”

This is an on the nose reference which would be immediately obvious to a Japanese audience, just like so many other characters featured in Bungou Stray Dogs, but would require a fair amount of digging from someone not well versed in classic Japanese literature. Which, I’m not, I had to look it up.

When you’re talking about a narrative this deep into Japanese literary history and culture, whose characters and their powers are based on other characters from other more famous stories you never read because you didn’t go to a Japanese high school, you have to realize that they’re not discussing the “mafia” in any realistic fashion. No, they’re talking about the Yakuza and not the Yakuza as they exist in the real world. We’re talking about the Yakuza as they exist in classic Japanese literature and as a cultural touchstone within their media.

An example is the Italian mafia as seen in The Godfather and not the Italian mafia from Goodfellas. One embraces the cultural idealization of the mafia, while the other… well, is trying for a biographical portrayal of an ex-mafioso’s life and experiences in the mob. Watch both, you’ll find very different movies working underneath the surface.

Metafiction, at heart, is a story within a story using characters/individuals or basing itself on characters who are either public domain or simply easily recognizable via simple motif. Metafiction relies heavily on a cultural contextual awareness of these characters (or historical individuals). These characters need no introduction because you’re expected to already know who they are. You know. The story lies in how they interact with each other, but their underlying narrative is one of exploration about these pieces of art in comparison and contrast, their values, their political views, their social mores, and how they interact with each other.

The surface story is John Locke and Thomas Hobbes hook up to fight crime in Victorian London. The underlying narrative explores the philosophical views of Locke and Hobbes as they deal with the human and societal circumstances forged by this variation of a rapidly changing British society neither experienced in their own lifetimes.

We already got a version this idea with the comic Calvin and Hobbes. We get the hijinks of a boy and his imaginary tiger friend, but the underlying comedy is exploring an interaction between the philosophies of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. The content is there if you know what to look for, and, if you’re from a cultural background where learning something about these two is required, you’ll pick up on the humor within the humor without needing it explained; even when you can’t articulate why.

Bungou Stray Dogs is like Calvin and Hobbes.

There are other Western versions of metafiction. An easy example to point to is Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Another is the show Penny Dreadful, which works off a similar concept with contemporary characters from the same time period as League. The Assassin’s Creed games are another example, they’re mashing a lot of contemporary historical figures together as touchstones for their narrative even if these individuals never actually interacted.

There’s a story, but that story is also built on the reader’s knowledge of these characters outside the fictional work itself. In a way, all fanfiction is metafiction. The major difference between one and the other is ultimately legality. The characters of metafiction are public domain, copyright does not apply, and so you can do what you like with them. You want to write a massive fanfic crossing over the works of Austen, Gaskell, and Bronte? In a coffee shop or high school setting? Go right ahead. You can do that legally. Be interesting enough and you could even get it published by a traditional publisher. After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did get published.

So, you writing fanfiction about Bungou Stray Dogs which is itself a massive crossover alternate AU fanfic about classic Japanese literature is extremely meta in its own right. Congrats!

Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the characters of Bungou Stray Dogs have personalities and powers based on the literary figures they’re associated with. If you want to make these characters useful to the criminal organization then you need to do your reading. They’re not just random characters in an anime, they’re based on a real author, probably an author who died young, and their famous protagonist. You should look at this crime boss and figure out which literary figure he’s based off of, the focus of the author’s narrative fiction, and accept that Japan has a tendency to throw around synonymous non-Japanese words willy-nilly. When calling an organization the mafia, they’re not really talking about the mafia within conventional Western understanding. This character is a very specific reference to a very specific individual and their works.

The trouble with metafiction is that it requires you do the reading, and in this case do the reading on other authors and their works you may not have ever heard of or realized were a primary influence and major reference on the material you’ve been watching/reading. However, to find the actual answer to your question, you’ve got to take a look at their works. Realize, these works may not be readily available or easily understood if you don’t read Japanese. Though the works of the authors referenced by the American association “The Guild” will be easy enough to get hold of, though thoroughly more confusing if you know anything about the authors Kafka Asagiri is referencing.  (From an American perspective, just looking at the versions appearing in this anime, I can say that I don’t know what the heck they read but that’s the key difference between looking at someone else’s literary culture versus your own.)

I mean, let’s be honest, Mark Twain’s power should be his ability to completely destroy your self-esteem. This requires a contextual understanding of Twain’s humor which may not be easily accessible via translation; especially if you only read a poor translation of Huckleberry Finn in high school. This is, after all, the man who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And, if you’re writing metafiction, or just fiction, or even fanfiction in general, he’s got some great advice, “get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

But, I digress. When writing metafiction, or any fiction, or just in general, it helps when you know what you’re talking about. Or, have the confidence and showmanship to convince people you do.

One of the great aspects writing fanfiction has to teach you is how to do your research. As a writer, you’re stepping into someone else’s shoes and learning to think from their perspective. You create a facsimile even though your creations will never truly match. You can’t be someone else, but you can try out their style and see if their work works for you. You have the opportunity to step back from a work and ask what this means to you as you put your own personal spin on it. You might even find yourself depending on how easily you wind up coloring outside the lines.

You should ask yourself, does canon matter to you? 

Canon doesn’t have to, sometimes fanfiction is simply a launchpad to doing your own work when you’re still trying to build up strength in your wings and aren’t ready to leave the nest.

Does realism matter to you?

Again, “realism” doesn’t have to matter. Realism is defined entirely by the narrative your working with. You make reality. Your research into criminal organizations is to discover how they work and how they think. Learn the rules so you can break them.  Learn the facts so you can distort them. You want to know how the world works and how people think the world works so you can change those rules, or realize the rules you thought were important don’t matter at all.

Reality is stranger than fiction.

Learn to act without waiting for permission.

For that reason, we work on giving you options and helping you understand how the world works. This may not have any bearing on the story you wanted to tell, but we can’t tell your story for you. A big step on the road to writing is learning to write for all the characters in your narrative and not just your protagonists. Learn to think like a crime boss or a villain, give them motivations and logical reasoning behind their actions as they weigh their decisions.

Crime is entirely based on risk versus reward. Does the opportunity for reward outweigh the risks involved? Is your desire to use these characters and create exciting plots for them overshadowing the decision of this other character? Can you internally justify the choice beyond just the fact these characters have supernatural powers?

Your characters making choices is what takes them from the realm of dolls and transforms them into people.

-Michi

(PS. I give a gold star to whomever reading this got that joke about Orson Welles.)

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Q&A: Computer Logic is not Human Logic

Hi! A question inspired by the androids of Detroit: Become Human. If an otherwise human android (or gynoid) had only faster reflexes (and inability to feel pain), being able to compute the best possible approach in any hand-to-hand combat situation from move to move, how much of an advantage would that be? Is there an advantage to human unpredictability or can melee combat be optimized by artificial intelligence?

Have you ever played chess against a computer?

They cheat. They don’t even cheat intelligently, they just cheat. They go right for the jugular, and the “game” is over in one to maybe two moves. An android in combat is going to do the same thing, in that it will do precisely what you programmed it to do and that logical outcome is: to go directly to instant death every. single. time.

Total neutralization of the threat before they have time to react.

Well, that’d be after the AI realized that it couldn’t just not fight or put the world on pause forever. Or it might just shut itself down after activation like that Security Robot which committed suicide in a fountain. Not fighting is winning. You can achieve victory by never fighting or simply shutting down. However, if you must, immediate total obliteration is the most optimal approach when it comes to conventional ideas about violence. You cut your enemy off at the knees, act preemptively once you register the situation, act before the enemy has time to get their pants on, and knock them off the proverbial cliff via straight up murder.

The computer does not distinguish, the computer does not regulate, the computer does not care. The computer is doing exactly what you told it to do and subtle nuance like deciding whether one crime is worse than another is beyond it. You told it to deal with a threat, the threat has been dealt with in the most efficient way possible regardless of future consequences. The computer wasn’t programmed to consider those.

Now, I know that some of you are going, “but what if it was?”

Well, let’s be honest, this is a perfectly logical, reasonable, rational solution that plenty of real people have already come up with. Plenty of self-defense professionals will tell you that this is the best, least risky, and ultimately safest solution is recognizing the threat before the threat occurs and acting. The two sets of mores which will hold us back are moral and social. This is not a societally or socially acceptable method of dealing with other human combatants.

Let us remember, you asked for the most efficient hand to hand solution and not the most socially acceptable one.

That method is sudden, violent murder. The computer will then escalate from there into preemptive action… like murdering all humans everywhere because that will definitively end the threat humans pose to each other.

This is why Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics exist.

Computers have trouble with complex moral quandaries and subtle nuance when it comes to decision making. You just don’t want them to be able to hurt people.

This, of course, is predicated on the idea that the programming works and the android can actually predict “the best possible” solution in hand to hand combat at a speed rapid enough to keep up with the human. (Which is why I say “preemptive instant death”, the computer will figure out quickly that this is the least risky approach which requires minimal overall computing power.) Hand to hand combat has a myriad of complex permutations and approaches which would be extremely difficult for a computer to keep up with, and the android could only do this with what it was programmed to know.  With a learning algorithm of some sort it’d be a kludgy person, ultimately slower and less capable. It not being able to “feel pain” would actually be a detriment for it. Working through pain is what teaches humans to ignore it, to know when they’ve reached their limit, when they truly are injured, and discover which pain actually matters.

This quality is often ignored by popular media outside of sports films, war movies, and fighting anime, but pain is extremely important to a combatant’s development. Pushing past pain is necessary for your mental barriers in martial arts training, which are key to developing conviction, determination, courage, and general grit. You don’t just train your body, you train your mind and your spirit. By going through difficult and frustrating experiences you grow, and get strong. That mental and emotional strength is what we use to push past our limits, to achieve new heights, and keep going when we’re certain we’re spent.

During training, you push past pain, past exhaustion, past your own insecurities, your self-defeat. You stand up. You keep going.

This quality? This comes from facing and defeating yourself, your own internal expectations of yourself and your own strength. You get past the first hump, and every hump you get past after that is a little easier even when the trials you face are more difficult.

The “One More Lap” mentality is the Determinator.

This is the difference between the mediocre student who showed up every day and worked their butt off to get better versus the talented student who was content to coast on their genetically gifted laurels.

This inner quality, earned by blood, sweat, and tears, is the foundation of every single champion.

It’ll screw up an algorithm.

And that’s why the computer cheats.

Against an overwhelming threat, the computer will react to protect itself the way anyone else would. Like so many other humans before it, the computer reduces risk to the smallest possible margins by turning to other options. It ultimately settle on the safest solution: preemption, and if not preemption then rapid escalation into brutality and murder.

If at any point during this post you went, “but no, that’s wrong!”

Exactly.

That’s an error checking your computer can’t do.

More than that, you can’t program a computer to work off information you don’t have and it doesn’t know. You can’t program the computer to “find the best solution in any hand to hand scenario” because you can’t program it with all that information. You won’t have access to nearly all the necessary information, and the possibilities are too numerous. Even if you program your computer with a magical learning algorithm it will only have access to the information it has experienced. The computer does not have the ability to be prescient.

I mean just look at all the actual AI experiments out there. Computers are very good at some aspects and terrible at others. Check out this video where an AI plays Tetris, and in order not to lose pauses right at the end. It can’t lose now, it’s indefinitely paused. Computer problem solving is different from human problem solving in some very fascinating and, in some cases, extremely literal ways.

Violence is very simple in some ways, but extremely complex in others. There are the moral and ethical quandries, such as when is use of force necessary but also complex kinetic motions requiring supremely good coordination in order to perform. This is the kind of force generation that’s very difficult to program because there are a lot of moving pieces. Those pieces are several steps beyond just programming the android to pick up objects, walk, or run.

The Terminators are the way to go. They don’t fight in conventional hand to hand, they just throw, flick, and crush on their way to victory. They have that option. They’re durable, most modern damage won’t slow them down, and they’re choosing motions that aren’t that mechanically complex. After all, why program the android to perform a 540 kick when they can throw someone through a wall? Easy, effective, involves fewer moving parts, and there’s ultimately less risk of damage.

The problem with Detroit: Become Human is that the androids are in the hands of a human player. They’re being controlled by a person, so, of course, they’ll behave like people. Games where you play the android are a terrible exploration of whether or not a computer can feel empathy. Think instead about NPCs in all your other video games. How do they behave? What do they do? There are plenty of learning AI in strategy games, and a lot of them cheat.

So, could a human fight this potential android and win?

Yes, fairly easily, because humans not only also cheat but because our brains prioritize the accumulation of different data that a computer will ignore. Information about the environment, for example. Developing tactics in regards to utilizing that environment during combat are another. We call this the “Let Me Hit You With A Trash Can Lid” approach. You can look at your environment and see items in it that you can use as weapons. The computer? The computer is going to ignore those. A human can also anticipate secondary and tertiary consequences to their actions, which means their decision making is ultimately different. It is very difficult to anticipate an enemy you ultimately don’t understand. Programming a computer with martial arts techniques is one thing, programming the computer to understand what people might do with those techniques is actually a different process altogether, and programming the computer to perform all those techniques (if they can even gain access to the full spectrum) is going to give some poor robotics expert a real headache.

I got a headache just thinking about it.

-Michi

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